Snake Game (Vajra Chandrasekera with Tory Hoke)

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Snake Game is the first new story at Sub-Q Magazine, written by a veteran speculative fiction author turning to IF for the first time. It tells the story of a man who has left the army and returned to his father’s home in the jungle, where the wife he barely knows waits with his young daughter. The story concerns his relationships to all of them, the things we pass down through generations, the way our parents can confuse us about our own identities, and several other things as well. Chandrasekera is Sri Lankan, and I had the impression, though I could be wrong, that the non-fantastical elements of the setting are drawn from his homeland.

Snake Game challenges categorization. It isn’t really choice-based fiction since the player is never making choices for the protagonist, nor does it quite seem like “dynamic fiction”, the term Caelyn Sandel uses for her linear but interactive Bloom. Instead, it is a navigable fiction.

Most of the incidents in the story have three alternate versions, and the reader can choose whether to slither forward through the story or whether to move sideways, considering alternate interpretations and understandings of what is going on. The options — forward, sideways left, sideways right, backward — match the four directions one can take in a game of Snake. Nonetheless, the events are still consistent enough that however much we might turn aside from a moment or an interpretation we dislike, some truth remains truth.

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Witch’s Brew: The Spellspinners of Melas County (Heidi Kling)

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What’s Cool from Coliloquy: In Witch’s Brew, Lily and Logan’s fate is already decided, but Heidi explores several different possible pathways for how they get there. She shares scenes that wouldn’t normally fit in a book format and gives readers more precious moments between the two young lovers. As the series progresses, you’ll see some normal narrative forms, interspersed with smaller scenes, alternate points of view, and a lot of “what if” scenarios. (Source.)

Coliloquy was a company creating interactive ebooks for the Kindle, which was semi-recently sold to digital publishing platform Vook. Witch’s Brew is the first book of a YA fantasy line of theirs. I’d encountered some articles about Coliloquy in the past, which made it sound as though the main selling point of the platform was that it was able to deliver reader metrics, not that it supported a significantly richer or different reading experience than other interactive fiction platforms out there.

The premise of Witch’s Brew is that the teenage witch Lily is preparing for the Gleaning, a mystical contest/battle against an evil warlock. Long ago light magic was apportioned to witches and dark magic to warlocks, and the Gleaning makes possible a redistribution of powers, which everyone apparently accepts is necessary even though the witches and warlocks who lose are Never Seen Again. But when Lily meets a breath-takingly sexy teen warlock who is able to speak to her telepathically, she begins to question whether she has been told the whole truth, and whether she and her hunky counterpart might not be the key to saving the future of magic. There are enchanted tattoos.

Side-characters include the beautiful, wise, shape-shifting mother figures of the coven (though there are some hints that all may not be completely as it seems there); Logan’s voodoo-using warlock buddy Chance (seemingly sort of a nice guy, though he doesn’t get a lot of character development); Lily’s angelic little sister Daisy, whom I could not stop picturing as Dawn Summers; and Jacob, the lead warlock, who has red-rimmed eyes, exhales toxic dust, and eats eggs whole, like a snake. He runs a pharmaceutical company, in case you weren’t sure of his moral alignment.

Here are some representative quotes:

“Girls,” she addressed us with flashing Indigo eyes, “join me, please.”

After the long hike, the magic eucalyptus smacked my system like a jolt of espresso.

The smell of beer mixed with the jubilant sounds of teenage revelry…

It’s a genre exercise, and it’s directed at people who fantasize about moody 16-year-old boys with chiseled abs and about being able to speak magical Gaelic. I wouldn’t say that it’s quite as far out of my preference zone as zombie horror, but this is not a genre where I tend to hang out just to enjoy the scenery, and this book is very much for people who do want to linger there. The marketing quote above is actually a pretty clear explanation of what interactivity is for in this book: giving you more “precious moments” between Lily and Logan.

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IF Comp prizes and prep

San Tilapian Studies being played at the Friday Spectacular. copyright Wellcome Collection

San Tilapian Studies being played at the Friday Spectacular. Copyright Wellcome Collection.

My narrative party game San Tilapian Studies seems to have been well received at the Wellcome Collection last month, which reminded me of how much fun I had both playing and making this game. So I’ve donated a kit as an IF Comp prize, meaning that I’ll customize the items and rules for the winner’s choice of genre, scale to desired party size (it was originally designed for 40, but doesn’t have to be), and assemble all the physical elements.

The other thing I’ve donated is a small piece set in the winner’s game world, whether they want that to be a feelie, a short story, or a piece of cover art within the range of my cover art abilities. (I don’t draw well, so it’s usually photography plus typography.) This would then be the winner’s to do with what they liked: keep private, distribute with their game, whatever.

This is an experiment; I don’t know if it’s likely to appeal. But I’ve always admired comp prizes that had the effect of adding resources for a game, such as translations, sound tracks, and artwork, that the community might enjoy. Marius Müller’s German translations of Sunday Afternoon and Patanoir are particularly awesome, even if I don’t know enough German to comment on their quality. I tossed around the idea of donating commissioned work, finding an artist or maybe a fantasy cartographer who might be hired to create some neat materials around a winner’s game, but there were too many unknowns there: you can’t get a quote on art without having some notion of what the image is going to be, and maps can vary enormously in complexity and challenge. And besides, you want to pick an artist when you’ve got some sense of the style of the thing being illustrated. Trying to plan a commission without knowing what it might be for just seemed like folly, in the end.

There’s a bunch of other neat stuff in the prize pool, including books, games, art, and some cash prizes.

Meanwhile: those who read this blog regularly know that for some years I’ve tried to review every IF Comp game that ran on my system and either a) listed beta testers or b) was choice-based. This year I’m changing that policy, in response to feedback that it’s too discouraging for novice authors, and will only cover games here for which my review is a net positive. I realize that still doesn’t accomplish the effect of actively encouraging new authors as some jams do, and I’m open to ongoing feedback about what would help with that, if it’s within my time and resources to address.

The IF Comp site is still accepting sign-ups from authors, as well as prize donations. The same site will be used to handle judge’s votes.

Tonight Dies the Moon (Tom McHenry)

tonightdiesTom McHenry is familiar to people who follow Twine as the author of the grotesquely fascinating Horse Master. Tonight Dies the Moon is his Twine contribution to Antholojam, and is a diptych of stories about an ongoing Earth-vs-Moon conflict. It is less narcotically surreal than Horse Master, but it shows many of the same influences and artistic impulses. There is pixelated art, there is resource management more for the sake of the experience of managing resources than because the player can ever hope to gain anything thereby, there are small evocative hints of a large horrible dystopia.

At the beginning of the story, you’re allowed to choose which you come from, and have an entirely different experience depending on your selection.

If you choose the Moon, you live out your life as a space farmer in a roughly communist pod, obsessing over which of about a half dozen crops you should plant each year on your personal allotment. If you save up enough, you can buy a ticket back to Earth, but I’m not sure it’s possible to succeed. I managed to scrape together enough cash to buy a little extra land, but there are arbitrary crop failures and problems, and you periodically need to revamp your farm equipment or your yields drop, and you only have so many seasons available to you. At no point during your Moon life do you attack the Earth.

If you choose the Earth, you’re a young person living out a job both depressing and soul-numbingly boring, in which you control a combat drone attacking moon bases. You spend more of your time filling in spreadsheets than you do piloting your craft. Piloting the craft is slow and cumbersome but really easy anyway. It is the opposite of a first-person shooter, a videogame representation of combat that makes it boring and unheroic. Where Unmanned takes on the moral dimensions of drone warfare, Tonight Dies the Moon comes more or less from the starting point that it’s pretty horrible even without considering the experience of those being bombed. Though, of course, one should take that into account.

Both stories are less lonely than Horse Master. The Moon protagonist has fellows in ger living environment; the Earth protagonist has roommates and parents. This gives McHenry a little more scope for individual characterization, and he uses it well. The awkward conversation with the Earth protagonist’s parents is highly plausible, touched by love and anxiety and resentment in both directions. It can go well or badly, depending, though it may not be immediately obvious why, and this too feels accurate to family relationships, especially in transitional young adulthood.

Slightly more spoilery discussion after the jump, but for my tastes, this is one of the best Twine pieces I’ve played this year.

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July Link Assortment

If you want to talk to and hang out with other interactive fiction enthusiasts, here are a bunch of forthcoming live IF meetups:

SF Bay: August 1, 1 PM. (Details here.)

Boston: Friday, August 14, 6:30 pm. (Details here.) I’m not sure August’s meeting has been scheduled yet, but there will probably be one; check out this space if you’re curious.

Seattle: August 15, 1 PM. (Details here.)

London: August 24, 7 PM. (Details and RSVP here. This was originally scheduled for the 25th, but Tube strikes are expected to make it hard to reach the venue that night, so we’ve moved it.)
We’re a diverse group including people interested in choice-based and parser IF, hypertext and Twine, StoryNexus, writing in video games, transmedia and interactive performance. You do not have to be experienced in any particular area to fit in; if you’re curious, please do join us and tell us about what you’re into. We meet in a lovely room above Failbetter Games HQ with a view of the Thames, talk and have snacks, and then after a couple of hours adjourn to the nearby pub. Everything is in easy walking distance of the North Greenwich tube stop.

Baltimore: August 29, 3 PM. (Details here.)

New York: I couldn’t find a listing for this month, and it looks as though the group may be on summer hiatus.

If you know of others I should be listing, please feel free to comment below.

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scrollthiefScroll Thief is out!

I haven’t had a chance to play the full version yet, but I really enjoyed the demo submitted to IntroComp (review here). It’s a classic old-school parser puzzle game set in the Zork/Enchanter universe, with humor and fun systemic results; while I’m not always keen on pieces that are just doing nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, the Scroll Thief demo was pretty inventive with its spellwork concepts and was actually taking the premise in some new directions. Cast spells! Cast spells on spells!

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Sub-Q, the new IF magazine/website, has announced its lineup of four new IF pieces upcoming in August. One of these is a reprint of Silver and Gold, a formally daring piece I reviewed here; the others are new work, including new material by Porpentine with Brenda Neotenomie and Yoon Ha Lee with Peter Berman (the team that produced the surreal and gorgeous To Spring Open). I am not familiar with any IF by Vajra Chandrasekera, but his publication history makes me eager to see the results.

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The Prix Net Art has a call for nominations open through August 17: it calls for works that are primarily experienced through a web browser and are more than incidentally acting on or acted on by the network; they explicitly call out twitter bots as an example of this kind of work, and I would guess that some types of interactive fiction might also be considered eligible. There is a $10,000 grand prize, as well as an additional $5000 for the runner up. Artists may nominate themselves, or may be nominated by third parties; the artist is not required to create a new work as part of the submission but will be judged on the basis of their existing portfolio. Additional details are provided here.

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I’ll be speaking on a panel with Naomi Alderman and Cara Ellison about stories in games at the London Literature Festival on October 7. If you’d like to join us, tickets are available here.

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I am also going to be at WordPlay this year (Toronto, Nov 7). WordPlay always shows a selection of text-rich games to the general public. If you want to submit something for consideration to be shown at WordPlay, there’s more information here, including discussion from IF community people who are planning to be there. I know in past years some people have worked together to pool transport and lodging, so that’s a place to look for those resources if you need them, too.

I’m also attending PRACTICE the next weekend in New York, with a stop in Boston in between. My schedule is filling in, but I’m planning to work in a way to get together with the Boston and New York IF groups; if there’s something else you want to meet about, please do get in touch and I’ll see if I can work in some time. (I’ve started listing upcoming appearances on my Contact page, in case that helps.)

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Bloom (Caelyn Sandel)

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Bloom is a substantial Twine story by Caelyn Sandel, being issued in episodes. (Because I’m writing some blog posts in advance of travel, there are only the prologue and two chapters available at writing time, but by the time you read this, the third chapter may well be available.) It tells the story of Andy Blumenthal as he discovers that he is rightly a woman called Cordy.

It’s a longer, less visceral piece than Caelyn’s previous Cis Gaze, playing out as a more substantial series of scenes — though there are still some passages with a gut-punch effect, as when the protagonist encounters some particularly unpleasant humor that hits her vulnerabilities.

The protagonist is not just her situation, though. She also has a family with its own interesting dynamics; a roommate and coworkers who are rounded enough not to be mere markers. Both Cordy and her sister Rachel have endearing styles of eating, making sure that textures and flavors are properly distributed. Cordy’s mother is active in domestic violence prevention, laudably, but it’s not at all clear how she’s going to react to Cordy’s gender identity. Cordy herself has a hard time explaining what’s happening to her, since she barely understands it herself at first, and it doesn’t match with the trans narratives she knows; she feels like she should have recognized herself as a woman back in childhood or puberty, not at the age of almost 30.

The structure is very linear. The player can explore a bit, and can sometimes pick a flavor choice of more or less significance, but the plot doesn’t appear to branch significantly (which, frankly, might be the only sensible way to do an episodic Twine piece).

Nonetheless, the interaction lends quite a lot to the experience, especially the sensation of being on the spot when Cordy feels overwhelmed and doesn’t know what she wants to do.